We’re Better at Spotting Manipulators Online Than in Person

Pictured: Lead author Michael Woodworth (not a manipulator). UBC Okanagan
Pictured: Lead author Michael Woodworth (not a manipulator). UBC Okanagan / Pictured: Lead author Michael Woodworth (not a manipulator). UBC Okanagan

Anybody can get scammed, manipulated, or exploited. But there’s some good news, especially for those of us who rarely leave our computers or phones: People are less likely to get suckered online than in face-to-face interactions. A new study shows that the absence of nonverbal cues better allows us to see through deceivers. The study results were published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. 

Psychologists quantify our personalities by breaking our behavior and thought patterns into traits. The “Big Five” are extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, openness, and conscientiousness. But the list doesn’t end there—there’s also the so-called Dark Triad (DT): psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. People who score high on DT traits are more likely than the general population to be skilled exploiters, intimidators, or manipulators. In other words, they’re the ones you need to watch out for in negotiations. 

In person, anyway. “While there has long been a fascination with DT personalities and how they can impact ‘ordinary’ people, little has been studied as to how these people behave online,” senior paper author Michael Woodworth said in a press statement. Woodworth and three of his colleagues at the University of British Columbia decided to find out if DT-inclined manipulators fare as well online as they do in person. 

The researchers recruited 200 college students, some of whom scored significantly in one or more DT traits. The students were given instructions to negotiate the best price for concert tickets (either as the buyer or the seller), and were broken into two groups. Half the students conducted their negotiations in person, while the others negotiated online.

As expected, high-DT participants were extremely successful in face-to-face negotiations. Online … not so much. These master manipulators were 12.5 percent less successful than other participants when their negotiating partner couldn’t see them. To rephrase: Not only were they less successful than they would have been in person, but they were actually less successful than other people.

“The results of this study are pretty clear—once you remove non-verbal cues such as body language from the equation, the ability to smoke out narcissists and psychopaths becomes easier,” Woodworth said. “We can also conclude that it is very likely that the qualities that allow these people to successfully charm, manipulate, intimidate, or exploit others appear to require a live, in-person audience.”

So what does this mean for you and me? “If you want to be confident in your ability not be taken in by these types of known manipulators,” Woodworth said, “you’re probably better off dealing with them online.”

Fortunately, these days you can get nearly everything online. Used furniture? Check. Engagement ring? Check. Landscapers? Sure! 

Obviously, there are some exceptions; negotiating your salary or other benefits pretty much has to be done in person. But if you already know your boss is a manipulator, you might not want to work there anyway.